By Kari Baumann
My favorite high school memories take place in the library: lounging by the magazines, Quiz Bowl practice, the time I spent reading The Lord of the Rings at a table in the fiction section. The library was both a haven and a doorway to freedom. Mostly because of Mrs. Pate.
Mrs. Pate was the perfect school librarian: sensible, no-nonsense. She was polite to every student and had the ability to laugh at an irreverent comment from one student while fixing another with a silencing eye. I tried out for the Quiz Bowl team as a freshman and she immediately took me under her wing.
Under her watchful presence, the library desk was a place where magical transactions occurred. She slid The Catcher in the Rye over the counter and said, “You should read this.” She handed me a copy of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice and told me that it was a requirement if I was going to be one of her Quiz Bowl girls. When I returned a brand new copy of Wide Sargasso Sea with its cover bent, she did not hide her displeasure. She handed me mysteries and historical fiction and The Princess Bride.
Like all the best teachers, Mrs. Pate went beyond what was required and cared about me as an individual. She gave me rides home after practice and let me cry in her office after my boyfriend broke up with me. When I complained about a couple of the girls in my classes, she dismissed them using words that teachers probably aren’t supposed to use. She spoke of a world I didn’t understand: her husband’s dissertation and her life in a local college town. And she spoke of her faith in a quiet and thoughtful way that was different than anyone else I knew. I wrote my graduation speech at her desk and ran to her office when I found out about my college scholarship. She hugged me as I cried tears of relief.
The other women in my life had already taught me that it was okay to be smart and interesting. But Mrs. Pate emphasized that in a new way, as a woman (and later a mom) with a career. When I decided to go to graduate school for library science, it was because I realized that the library is the place where I feel most alive. When I decided to make the switch from being a public librarian to a school librarian, Mrs. Pate was the one I called for advice. I owe my career and some of my favorite books to her. (And she was on Jeopardy! Which is basically the coolest thing ever.)
Sometimes students come to my school’s library and stand at the desk and tell me things about their lives. Sometimes they come just to hang out or to blow off steam or to hide or to cry. Sometimes they even come to check out books. I let them stay when I can, and I try to listen, and I tell them how proud I am of them. I want the library to be for them what Mrs. Pate made it for me: a safe place that opened my eyes to new and exciting worlds.
As a young girl in the 1980s, I grew up knowing I could soar into space or serve on the Supreme Court or run for Vice-President. But in reality, I didn’t know how one might make the leap from rural North Carolina to a job as an astronaut. Mrs. Pate taught me that the most important thing is to love your work. And we loved her right back.
She says I can call her by her first name, but, to me, she will always be Mrs. Pate, woman of valor.
Kari is a middle school librarian in North Carolina, where she lives with her husband and her son. She writes about seeing and being seen at www.throughaglass.net.
This post is part of our Women of Valor series. Eshet chayil—woman of valor— has long been a blessing of praise in the Jewish community. Husbands often sing the line from Proverbs 31 to their wives at Sabbath meals. Women cheer one another on through accomplishments in homemaking, career, education, parenting, and justice by shouting a hearty “eshet chayil!” after each milestone. Great women of the faith, like Sarah and Ruth and Deborah, are identified as women of valor. One of my goals after completing my year of biblical womanhood was to “take back” Proverbs 31 as a blessing, not a to-do list, by identifying and celebrating women of valor. To help me in this, you submitted nearly 100 essays to our Women of Valor essay contest. There were so many essays that made me laugh, cry, and think I’ve decided that, in addition to the eight winners we featured in August, I will select several more to feature as guest posts throughout the fall.
We have honored a single mom, a feisty professor, a midwife, a foster parent, an abuse survivor, a brave grandmother, a master seamstress, a young Ugandan woman who reached out to a sister in need, and many more.